One of the world’s greatest ever combat aircraft, the two-seat Phantom was designed to meet a US Navy requirement for a fleet defence fighter to replace the F3H Demon and counter the threat from long-range Soviet bombers. When the F-4 proved faster than their F-104 Starfighter, the United States Air Force ordered the Phantom too.
The F-4 was first used by the United States Navy as an interceptor but was soon employed by the US Marine Corps (USMC) in the ground support role. Its outstanding versatility made it the first US multi-service aircraft flying concurrently with the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Phantom excelled in air superiority, close air support, interception, air defence suppression, long-range strike, fleet defence, attack and reconnaissance.
The sophisticated F-4 was, without direction from surface-based radar, able to detect and destroy a target beyond visual range (BVR). In the Vietnam and Gulf Wars alone, the F-4 was credited with 280 air-to-air victories.
Capable of flying at twice the speed of sound with ease, the Phantom was loved by its crews, who considered it a workhorse that could be relied on, that could do the job and get them home safely. F-4s have also set world records for altitude (30,040m/98,556ft on December 6, 1959), speed (2585kph/1606mph on November 22, 1961) and a low-altitude speed record of 1452kph/902mph that stood for 16 years. Phantom production ran from 1958 to 1979, resulting in a total of 5195 aircraft. 5057 were made in St Louis, Missouri, in the USA while a further 138 were built under licence by the Mitsubishi Aircraft Co. in Japan. F-4 production peaked in 1967, when the McDonnell plant was producing 72 Phantoms per month.
The US Air Force had 2874 F-4s, while the US Navy and USMC operated 1264. A number of refurbished ex-US forces aircraft were operated by other nations, including the UK, who bought a squadron of mothballed ex-US Navy F-4Js to complement the RAF’s F-4Ms.
Regularly updated with the addition of state-of-the-art weaponry and radar, the Phantom served with 11 nations around the globe – Australia, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Turkey and the UK. Britain’s Royal Navy and Royal Air Force both operated Phantoms from 1968 and the last RAF Phantoms were retired in January 1992. The Phantom retired from US military forces in 1996, by which time the type had flown more than 27,350,000km (around 17 million miles) in the nation’s service. In May 1998, when the aircraft was celebrating 40 years in the air, the Phantom was still flying in defence of eight nations – Egypt, Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Spain and Turkey. Israel, Japan, Germany, Turkey, Greece, South Korea and Egypt have undertaken or plan to upgrade their F-4s and keep them flying until 2015, nearly 60 years after the Phantom’s first flight on May 27, 1958.
Sufficient clearance tor the twin J79 engines resulted in the distinctive bulky profile, which gave rise to the type’s nickname ‘Double Ugly’. Above the engines were the fuselage fuel cells. Although used by the Navy primarily as an interceptor, the F-4B was wired to carry air-to-ground weapons. As the war in Southeast Asia intensified, USN Phantoms were often seen flying bombing missions over North Vietnam, especially when there were not sufficient attack aircraft available. Most F-4 crews despised bombing sorties.
The medium-range AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missile was designed as part of the F-4’s weapons system. When it was working, the Sparrow was an excellent missile, although in Vietnam it was prone to malfunctioning. As the first major production Phantom variant, the F-4B featured a Westinghouse APO-72 radar, which was state of the art in 1965. A small under-nose pod housed an infra-red seeker, though this was removed from the F-4J.